Shaun King, the #blacklivesmatter activist who has been accused of being a white man "passing" as black, posted an impassioned defense Thursday in which he said the man listed on his birth certificate is not his biological father.
"The reports about my race, about my past, and about the pain I’ve endured are all lies," King wrote on the website DailyKos.com, where he is a staff writer. "My mother is a senior citizen. I refuse to speak in detail about the nature of my mother’s past, or her sexual partners, and I am gravely embarrassed to even be saying this now, but I have been told for most of my life that the white man on my birth certificate is not my biological father and that my actual biological father is a light-skinned black man. My mother and I have discussed her affair. She was a young woman in a bad relationship and I have no judgment."
In 1999, King, a Morehouse student from Kentucky, was elected president of the college’s student government association on a campaign of inclusion of all kinds of students. By most accounts, the history major was a socially conscious, light-skinned black man who wanted to make a difference not just on campus but in the larger Atlanta community.
He had been awarded the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship that encouraged the recipient to volunteer to help others. King apparently took it to heart. He mentored students at Frank L. Stanton Elementary School, a relationship that lasted more than decade, long after he had graduated from Morehouse and founded Courageous Church in Midtown. In 2009 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recognized his work with the students by selecting him as one of the newspaper’s annual Holiday Heroes.
His was a ministry built through the power of the Internet, which he used to raise money to buy school uniforms and toys for kids at Stanton whose parents couldn’t afford them.
Over the past week, conservative bloggers and websites, including Breitbart, have alleged that both of King’s parents are white, and that he claimed to be black or biracial in order to get the Winfrey scholarship.
Bloggers also say he exaggerated claims of being injured in an alleged racially motivated beating while he was in high school. King, 35, has been a leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and has highlighted the string of police killings of unarmed black men.
'I am not ashamed of it, or of who I am'
The race story surrounding King — first put forward by a conservative blogger weeks ago — has gained traction on conservative websites and spilled over into mainstream media. Bloggers have posted his childhood photos along with what they claim is a copy of his birth certificate, which lists his parents as white. In his DailyKos post Thursday, he replied:
This has been my lived reality for nearly 30 of my 35 years on earth. I am not ashamed of it, or of who I am—never that—but I was advised by my pastor nearly 20 years ago that this was not a mess of my doing and it was not my responsibility to fix it. All of my siblings and I have different parents. I'm actually not even sure how many siblings I have. It is horrifying to me that my most personal information, for the most nefarious reasons, has been forced out into the open and that my private past and pain have been used as jokes and fodder to discredit me and the greater movement for justice in America.
Support around him swelled this week with friends, former Morehouse classmates and social justice activists saying claims that King has been dishonest about his race are lies. Willis Polk II said in a Facebook post that he was a childhood friend of King’s in Kentucky and also his roommate at Morehouse.
“We grew up in a town where white mothers were constantly disowned by their families for having relationships and making children with black fathers,” Polk wrote in the Facebook post. “Where even into the 2000s, the racial identities of mix-raced children were a taboo topic. Shaun was a direct victim of that,” Polk wrote.
Morehouse: His race wasn't a factor
Corey Richardson, also a former Morehouse classmate, was blunt during an interview with the AJC on Thursday.
“He is black,” said Richardson, who now lives in Chicago. “A light-skinned black guy. That is what he is. When you interact with him, you don’t get a sense that he is not who he portrays himself as. He was a deeply Afrocentric and religious person. He had the bearing of a Southern black preacher.”
As for the assertion that King lied about his race to get the Winfrey scholarship, Morehouse officials scoffed at that claim Thursday.
“We don’t grant admission based on race or for scholarships,” said Elise Durham, spokeswoman for Morehouse College. “His being black, white, green or blue would not have determined his admission here. We had a white valedictorian in 2008 and we have students of all nationalities.”
Durham said the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship at Morehouse has been a need- and merit-based scholarship since it was first awarded 26 years ago. Recipients of any race are eligible for it if they meet the academic and financial requirements.
“He was a full and active student,” said Durham. “His race has nothing to do with his time here.”
King graduated from Morehouse in 2002.
Supporter: Remember the Sherrod incident?
Many in the #BlackLivesMatter movement see the allegations that King is lying about his race as not only a personal attack on him but an attempt to discredit the larger movement. Members of the movement, however, point out that people of all races are involved in the effort that began in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.
Some like Nsenga Burton, an associate professor of New Media and Journalism at Clark Atlanta University, say the fact that doubts about King’s race have been furthered by the conservative website Breitbart makes them suspect.
“These are the same people who went after Shirley Sherrod,” said Burton.
She was referring to the website’s 2010 involvement in attempts to discredit Sherrod, the former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture. Video of Sherrod talking to an NAACP chapter about lessons she learned about purging racial prejudice from her life was highly edited by a conservative blogger to make it seem as though she harbored hatred for whites. Breitbart posted the edited video. Andrew Breitbart, the late founder of the website, said at the time he didn’t know what was on the video when it was given to him.
Burton, who has heard King give talks about social justice, said King’s case is different from that of Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane, Wash., NAACP president who was born to white parents but now identifies as black.
“He never pretended to be anyone other than who he is, biracial,” Burton said. “Racism makes it such that blacks have to prove their blackness while whites never have to prove their whiteness despite being mixed just like us.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this report.